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Senator Specter's switch can be viewed in one of two ways. Either as a statement that the GOP has moved too far to the right or practically that Specter had angered too many conservatives back home by voting for the Obama stimulus package and knew that he would not survive next year's primary. Scott Detrow of member station WITF in Harrisburg reports.
SCOTT DETROW: Talk about a Party switch or independent run has been buzzing through Pennsylvania's political circles for months now. In fact, Specter joked about the idea during a Harrisburg speech in January.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Governor Rendell made the suggestion to me, said that if I became a Democrat he'll help me raise money. I told him if I became a Democrat I wouldn't have to raise any money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DETROW: And while Specter insisted time after time that he'd stay in the GOP, the switch made sense. A recent Quinnipiac University poll said only 36 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans approved of his job in the Senate, well more than 70 percent of Democrats gave him positive reviews. Specter defeated then Congressman Pat Toomey by less than a percentage point in a bruising 2004 primary.
His vote for the stimulus package may have been the last straw. Shortly after that Toomey said he'd be back for another challenge. He was opening up wide leads in recent polls but most worrisome to Specter may have been the fact that thousands of moderate Republicans switched their registration to Democrat during last years presidential election. That eroded Specter's traditional base in the GOP. Political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College says Pennsylvania Republicans are becoming more polarized.
Mr. TERRY MADONNA (Political Scientist, Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania): Republicans simply don't want a 60 percent Republican voting with their own party, or put it another way Republicans don't want a 40 percent Obama Republican.
DETROW: Pennsylvania law barred Specter from following the path Senator Joe Lieberman took in 2006. If he had contested and lost the Republican primary, he wouldn't have been allowed to run in the general election as a third party candidate. Republican Party Chair Robert Gleason says he's deeply disappointed by the move, charging Specter with acting out of self-interest and putting his political ambitions first.
Republican challenger Pat Toomey says Specter's switch make sense, arguing he's more at home in the Democratic Party than he was in the GOP. But Democrats are already rallying around Specter. State Representative Josh Shapiro had been viewed as a contender for the nomination but says he's no longer going to run. State House Majority Leader Todd Eachus agrees, saying Specter needs to be the party's standard bearer. For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow.
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